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Next stop Samoa – What are we aiming to achieve?

Next year, in August of 2014, the international community will gather in Apia, Samoa for the 3rd International Conference on Small Islands Developing States (SIDS). This event is held as a follow up to the 1994 Barbados Plan of Action (BPOA) and the 2005 Mauritius Strategy of Implementation (MSI) thus celebrating a 20 years anniversary of international dialogue to facilitate sustainable development in island nations. The question I want to post to all of us, as members of the international community, is: What are we aiming to achieve this time around?   

I guess everyone can agree that dealing with (1) the limited carrying capacity of islands, determined by the demographics, physical and/or environmental limits of islands, and (2) the interdependence of islands’ livelihood and climate change triggered events or impacts, are front and center among the national and international concerns.

In other words, Carrying Capacity and Climate Change are the two principle factors impacting the access to reliable, affordable and clean water, energy, products and food to sustain current and future island communities.

Now, although it may sound straightforward and even repetitive at times, in my view island communities will have to transition completely to a sustainable development paradigm to simply survive. This does not only mean that we have to increase the rational use of our land and natural resources, save water, improve the eco-efficiency and effectiveness of the economy, and increasingly deploy centralized and decentralized renewable energy technologies, but more so re-think our island societies.

But above all, the starting point should be the realization of the urgency for implementing the beautiful ideas, policies, commitments, and concepts we have development in the past two decades for the simple sake of survival of island communities.   

None of us have all the answer, but I would like to share some ideas that may contribute to this process. First of all, if we want to achieve sustainable island development, we will need to introduce or create holistic, interdisciplinary, inclusive and scientifically objective sustainable development goals, policy and instruments and have them effectively implemented.

One way to do this is, is by looking at islands from a systematic perspective, where you identify, establish and quantify the water, energy, and material balances of the island. This simple activity will allow you to have a first macro understanding of what enters the island, how it is used or consumed, what remains on the island and what eventually leaves or is exported from the island.

Proper policies can only be created if you know the starting point and this is quantified. Thus by aiming to create and apply sustainable development indicators that allow you to measure, verify and replicate efforts, a community is able to set goals and targets. Globally some are taking the lead on introducing new sustainability indicators; I just hope that these sustainable indicators adequately respond to the need for balancing out the economic, social and environmental needs or priorities.

Another key issue I would prioritize addressing to achieve sustainable island development, is how products import, consumption and disposal are leading to significant waste problems in many island states. This has many implications, including the contamination of the soil, water and air leading to public health risks and the need for proper cost-effective waste management systems which are non-existent in many islands.  This issue requires a complete shift in the import regime, product purchase and consumption patterns.

A possible route to consider is by giving incentives to the import of “sustainable designed” products to eliminate the waste problem. Imagine importing products that do not contain carcinogenic components or any eco-toxicological features; imagine products that you can throw out in a park without feeling guilty about it since it is ecologically neutral; imagine a product that can be easily decomposed and where you can re-concentrate its primary components into pure material streams to enable you to create a new product of similar or even better quality; imagine a complete new way of seeing products as a source for good business where the concept of “waste” is changed into a “resource”.

These are the type of products, island communities may want to import, manufacture or consume to prevent waste problems, thrive new types of businesses, create employment, and help diversify the economy.  This will not only affect the material flows through or on the island, but will also improve the reliance on increasingly costly products of which most are derived from fossil fuels. Please note that crude oil is not only used to create derivatives as fuel oil, diesel, jet fuel, gas, and other for power generation and transport fuel, but also function as the principle source of the basic ingredients for most products (e.g. electronics) that contain plastics and other solid and liquid chemicals. 

Last but not least, guaranteeing inclusiveness and appreciating the multidisciplinary nature of our contemporary global challenges is critical for achieving sustainable development. All citizens are stakeholders and have the right to participate in decision making processes. This has been the paramount critic of persons I met in Rio last year regarding the RIO+20 negotiation process and final declaration.

There is need for a drastic shift in mentality of economists and policy makers or law practitioners, most holding key decision making positions, where we all as global community should realize that times change, problems and challenges change, and that these have become more complex and interdisciplinary. Thus an increased consciousness is warranted that not because one is a policy or decision maker he or she is the only professional entitled to have the final call upon the direction and content of the policy at play, but that due to the complexity of our global problems as for instance climate change, a more diverse set of stakeholders should be at the head negotiation tables to guarantee policies have measurable, verifiable and replicable targets and indicators that should function as the driving and guiding force of the policy language, commitments, and implementation.

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